Kiwanian George Wieder on left speaks with Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, after the luncheon held at the Loudermilk Center downtown.

The Kiwanis Club of Atlanta‘s weekly luncheon meeting Feb. 5 featured an address by Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), revealing how the momentum has changed in the immigration debate.

During his remarks that focused primarily on the losses Georgia‘s economy has experienced due to the state’s anti-immigrant laws, he urged the attendees to encourage efforts to support immigration reform.

“The moment is right; the moment is now,” he told the attendees citing initiatives in the U.S. Senate and President Obama‘s commitment to deal with the issue. “We have waited too long for Congress to address this complicated issue.”

In his view, a compromise will need to be reached between proposals that will be presented by the administration representing a Democratic Party view and by U.S. Sen. Mario Rubio of Florida, representing a Republican Party view.

As a reminder of earlier attempts at immigration reform, he referred to former President Ronald Reagan‘s “grand amnesty” proposal that sought tighter security at the country’s borders and provided penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers.

Once Mr. Reagan signed the bill amnesty was conferred on about 3 million illegal immigrants who had entered the United States prior to 1982.

For years the bill has been viewed as a failure because Congress declined to fund many of its provisions, but as the Republican Party evaluates its loss to Mr. Obama in the recent election this legacy is being resurrected.

Mr. Gonzalez cited Laura Murvartian as an example of how the policy could “harvest great human potential.” Ms. Murvartian’s father entered the U.S. as an illegal immigrant from Mexico and made enough money to fly his family including his 8-year-old daughter Laura to Minnesota in 1976 where he was living.

Ms. Murvartian recounts her past in a StoryCorp feature of Atlanta public radio station WABE describing how she grew up working alongside her parents plucking chickens, picking peas or processing corn.

She was the first in her family to receive a college degree, which she credits to the hard work and support of her parents, and went on to earn a master’s of public policy degree from the University of Michigan.

Currently, Ms. Murvartian owns the development rights in Georgia for WineStyles, a national network of retail wine stores, and serves as chair of GALEO’s Leadership Council.

She was one of the 3 million illegal immigrants who received amnesty under Mr. Reagan’s program. According to Mr. Gonzalez, she currently is not only successful as a business person, but soon is to become a U.S. citizen.

Since the Reagan initiative, Mr. Gonzalez said, Congress failed to develop any solutions to deal with illegal immigration, and as the economy continued to expand in the 1990s the need for the illegals’ labor grew rapidly.

The Summer Olympics of 1996 in Atlanta was a case in point because it provided work for tens of thousands of low-skilled immigrants, who now number more than 300,000 in the state, he said.

Ironically, Georgia was the first state to begin cracking down on illegal immigrants with its Security and Compliance Act in 2006 that was authored by state Sen. Chip Rogers and eventually was signed into law by former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Five years later, Mr. Rogers once again played a critical role in marshaling legislation to crackdown on illegals by backing a bill that included support of the E-verify program requiring employers to double check with a national electronic database concerning the immigration status of their employees.

The bill had what is now realized widely as a chilling effect on migrant workers coming to Georgia with the result that the state’s agricultural sector suffered.

Mr. Gonzalez didn’t veil his feelings about Mr. Rogers, referring to him as the “George Wallace of the Jose Crow laws,” a title that harks back to the South‘s segregationist past and can’t bode well for Mr. Roger’s efforts to promote Georgia’s economic development as a marketing executive for Georgia Public Broadcasting, a position he left the Senate to accept.

Coincidentally, he said, last year a bill seeking to keep children of illegal immigrants out of state colleges and universities failed to pass.

Mr. Gonzalez also cited the research of The Essential Economy Council launched by former state Sens. Sam Zamarripa and Dan Moody that is quantifying the impact of low-wage, low-skilled jobs, many of which are being performed by illegals.

With the mission of providing quantifiable information about the contribution of illegal immigrants to Georgia’s economy, the nonprofit organization has attracted a board of directors composed of senior representatives of a wide range of state associations representing the restaurant, home building, poultry, agricultural including fruit and vegetable grower sectors.

It also is joined by an advisory council composed of academics from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia, and an economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

From Mr. Gonzalez’s view, Georgia’s economy would collapse without the work conducted by the workers who are the focus of the council. Instead of lamenting the current state of affairs, however, he is optimistic that a bipartisan solution is in the offing.

Calling for a “workable solution,” that would be “fair,” “rational,” and “uphold our values,” he cited the need for a roadmap to citizenship for those illegals living here, a policy for dealing with the future flow of immigrants, border security and interior enforcement measures.

Queried by a Kiwanian about the difference in settings between today and in 1986 when the Reagan amnesty was passed, Mr. Gonzalez cited new technologies replacing inefficient paperwork as a positive factor.

He said that a tamper proof biometric card could be issued, which would be superior to previous proofs of employment verification.

He also dismissed the claim that illegal immigrants hurt the state because of extra social service costs by countering that their contribution to the overall strength of the economy vastly outweighs the extra hospital and educational social costs.

Finally, he said that the U.S was “shooting itself in the foot” because the lack of a comprehensive immigration encourages illegals who are in the country to remain here instead of being able to move back and forth more freely.

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